Why do we offer online learning, why do we regularly call our students and why do we advise you to answer questions at a job interview with real life examples?
As educators we often have a series of objectives to achieve: engage students, impart knowledge, develop their skills, and at the very end of the process, make them purpose-ready. To prioritise, manage and balance each objective requires careful consideration, and we must not favour one over another. Technological developments in education both challenge and enable the way in which training is delivered. We are constantly innovating the learning environment in order to remain relevant and absorbing. However, in this process, are we endangering our final objective of creating graduates who are fit for purpose?
Following recent eLearning trends, we are witnessing a shift towards education that is accessible, personalised and attractive. Fantastic! This is a welcome revolution, allowing a wider and more encompassing reach – education for all. But as education departs the classroom and the lecture theatre, and arrives at laptops, tablets and smartphones, certain skills and qualities are disappearing – and those qualities are highly valued by potential employers. Initiative, self-awareness, collaborative skills and leadership traits are often the sacrifice of eLearning. The best eLearning practitioners and developers will need to establish ways of embedding these qualities back into the accessible, personalised and attractive curriculum being delivered.
Let’s take a look at four of the qualities desired by employers, and ways in which we can incorporate them into eLearning:
1. Collaborative skills
It’s no surprise that one of the principal qualities that employers seek in new recruits is the ability to communicate, cooperate and negotiate. A 2008 survey of employers conducted by CBI, examining the factors that take priority when recruiting, revealed that employability skills such as teamwork and communication were most desired. In fact, they were favoured much higher than a student’s results, and significantly outweighed whether or not the student had attended a university.
It is a common feature of most online (and indeed campus-based) courses to provide student discussion forums that allow students to connect and discuss the content, assessments and learning objectives. However, often these forums become contrived with some students dominating the conversation, while others will contribute the bare minimum for a passing grade. In an age where the workplace can traverse multiple time zones and satellite offices via a simple Skype meeting, we have now the technological capabilities necessary to offer our students more effective ways to develop their collaborative skills.
At Computer Power Institute, students studying online across Australia are required to complete an interdisciplinary Group Development Project as part of their IT training. As part of the project, each participant is assigned a role in the team (such as Team Leader or Communications Officer), and together the students are tasked with creating a system proposal for an external client. The students are required to organise and manage their own meetings, and work cooperatively as a team to complete the proposal. Not only is it one of the most engaging and rewarding components of their course, but it becomes an extremely valuable asset when entering the workforce.
2. Practical applications
The growing need for practical skills development is becoming more apparent with the increase in project-based learning and assessments. No one understands the importance of practical abilities better than employers. The National Employers Skills Survey, a UK case study published in 2005, showed that one of the most common concerns for employers when recruiting graduates is their lack of practical skills. Of course, practical skills are important – that’s a “no-brainer”! Nevertheless, we must be doing something wrong if this type of feedback continues to emerge.
I believe this disconnect exists between “theory-practical” and “practical-practical” learning. By these terms I am referring to the theory of practice – an explanation of when to apply skills – and the application of practice – actually getting in and getting your hands dirty. It is not enough for educators to simply describe the situations in which a student would use their newly developed skills, but how can eLearning support their practical application?
There are a multitude of solutions, including simulations to recreate real-world situations in an online format. At Didasko Institute of Business, students undertaking training in management are required to complete a series of role-plays, such as conducting a mock job interview, which they can record using their phones and upload for assessment. We are not limited by the ways in which students can interact with the learning content, but our focus should be the practical application of skills rather than the easiest ways for a student to respond to assessments.
3. Leadership qualities
One of the essential qualities of a well-rounded graduate (and future employee) is the ability to lead. In the online learning industry, we are challenged as to how we can foster leadership skills. The notion of personalised learning, that is becoming more and more prevalent in the eLearning arena, often leads to an isolated and detached environment for students who seek to become qualified as quickly as possible. Therefore, the first step in overcoming this disadvantage is peer-to-peer connection. Social media, or even an internal networking facility managed by the institute, is an excellent way to enable students to build their professional network.
The next step is to develop their leadership potential. What better way to do so than by leading by example. Provide students with access to industry leaders and mentors. This does not require any elaborate mentoring programs – although there are significant benefits to be reaped by such initiatives. It can be implemented by a variety of means, such as webinars, webcasts or newsletters.
The final stage is to allow students themselves to become the mentors. Schemes such as Deakin’s Student Ambassador Program enables students to become role models for others and builds on their skills of leadership, communication and resourcefulness. The implementation in an eLearning environment can be as straightforward as inviting students to generate or participate in webinars and articles, or as advanced as presenting online workshops or one-on-one tutorials.
4. Extra-curricular experience
To be able to cultivate all of the above qualities in a single process would result in graduates who are capable of negotiating a team environment, experienced in applying their skills, and potential leaders. According to 2010 research presented at the 33rd HERDSA Annual International Conference, in recent years a growing emphasis has been placed on ‘community leadership’ when examining graduate attributes. This is a quality that extends beyond both the classroom and the workplace and refers to the wider society; a quality only experienced by engaging with the community. Organisations are increasingly becoming socially and environmentally aware, and as such, they are seeking employees who uphold the same beliefs and ideals.
The campus-based delivery mode of education is currently in first place in terms of providing opportunities for extra-curricular experience. Students are given opportunities to participate in group activities, as well as community focused ventures such as humanitarian aid efforts, support rallies and environmental sustainability projects. Once again, the challenge for educators as eLearning facilities continue to expand is to find the opportunity to replicate the campus offerings that enable students to become ‘community leaders.’
Institutes that realise the value of employable graduates and students who are fit for purpose will establish ways to enable students to engage in their community, regardless of the learning delivery mode. Create a noticeboard for volunteering opportunities that assists students to get involved. Is there potential for funding to allow students to initiate their own community outreach endeavours?
While we continue to innovate and advance the technologies in education that strengthen learning and student engagement, we must keep in our sights the value of employable students. We have not evolved in education if our output is partially developed students.